The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  After school, before Uncle David came home, while Grandma was resting, when Old Janet had given him his milk and told him to run away and not bother her, Stephen dragged a chair to the bookshelf, stood upon it and reached into the box. He did not take three or four as he believed he intended; once his hands were upon them he seized what they could hold and jumped off the chair, hugging them to him. He stuffed them into his reefer pocket where they folded down and hardly made a lump.

  He gave them all to Frances. There were so many, Frances gave most of them away to the other children. Stephen, flushed with his new joy, the lavish pleasure of giving presents, found almost at once still another happiness. Suddenly he was popular among the children; they invited him specially to join whatever games were up; they fell in at once with his own notions for play, and asked him what he would like to do next. They had festivals of blowing up the beautiful globes, fuller and rounder and thinner, changing as they went from deep color to lighter, paler tones, growing glassy thin, bubbly thin, then bursting with a thrilling loud noise like a toy pistol.

  For the first time in his life Stephen had almost too much of something he wanted, and his head was so turned he forgot how this fullness came about, and no longer thought of it as a secret. The next day was Saturday, and Frances came to visit him with her nurse. The nurse and Old Janet sat in Old Janet’s room drinking coffee and gossiping, and the children sat on the side porch blowing balloons. Stephen chose an apple-colored one and Frances a pale green one. Between them on the bench lay a tumbled heap of delights still to come.

  “I once had a silver balloon,” said Frances, “a beyootiful silver one, not round like these; it was a long one. But these are even nicer, I think,” she added quickly, for she did want to be polite.

  “When you get through with that one,” said Stephen, gazing at her with the pure bliss of giving added to loving, “you can blow up a blue one and then a pink one and a yellow one and a purple one.” He pushed the heap of limp objects toward her. Her clear-looking eyes, with fine little rays of brown in them like the spokes of a wheel, were full of approval for Stephen. “I wouldn’t want to be greedy, though, and blow up all your balloons.”

  “There’ll be plenty more left,” said Stephen, and his heart rose under his thin ribs. He felt his ribs with his fingers and discovered with some surprise that they stopped somewhere in front, while Frances sat blowing balloons rather halfheartedly. The truth was, she was tired of balloons. After you blow six or seven your chest gets hollow and your lips feel puckery. She had been blowing balloons steadily for three days now. She had begun to hope they were giving out. “There’s boxes and boxes more of them, Frances,” said Stephen happily. “Millions more. I guess they’d last and last if we didn’t blow too many every day.”

  Frances said somewhat timidly, “I tell you what. Let’s rest awhile and fix some liquish water. Do you like liquish?”

  “Yes, I do,” said Stephen, “but I haven’t got any.”

  “Couldn’t we buy some?” asked Frances. “It’s only a cent a stick, the nice rubbery, twisty kind. We can put it in a bottle with some water, and shake it and shake it, and it makes foam on top like soda pop and we can drink it. I’m kind of thirsty,” she said in a small, weak voice. “Blowing balloons all the time makes you thirsty, I think.”

  Stephen, in silence, realized a dreadful truth and a numb feeling crept over him. He did not have a cent to buy licorice for Frances and she was tired of his balloons. This was the first real dismay of his whole life, and he aged at least a year in the next minute, huddled, with his deep, serious blue eyes focused down his nose in intense speculation. What could he do to please Frances that would not cost money? Only yesterday Uncle David had given him a nickel, and he had thrown it away on gumdrops. He regretted that nickel so bitterly his neck and forehead were damp. He was thirsty too.

  “I tell you what,” he said, brightening with a splendid idea, lamely trailing off on second thought, “I know something we can do, I’ll—I. . .”

  “I am thirsty,” said Frances with gentle persistence. “I think I’m so thirsty maybe I’ll have to go home.” She did not leave the bench, though, but sat, turning her grieved mouth toward Stephen.

  Stephen quivered with the terrors of the adventure before him, but he said boldly, “I’ll make some lemonade. I’ll get sugar and lemon and some ice and we’ll have lemonade.”

  “Oh, I love lemonade,” cried Frances. “I’d rather have lemonade than liquish.”

  “You stay right here,” said Stephen, “and I’ll get everything.”

  He ran around the house, and under Old Janet’s window he heard the dry, chattering voices of the two old women whom he must outwit. He sneaked on tiptoe to the pantry, took a lemon lying there by itself, a handful of lump sugar and a china teapot, smooth, round, with flowers and leaves all over it. These he left on the kitchen table while he broke a piece of ice with a sharp metal pick he had been forbidden to touch. He put the ice in the pot, cut the lemon and squeezed it as well as he could—a lemon was tougher and more slippery than he had thought—and mixed sugar and water. He decided there was not enough sugar so he sneaked back and took another handful. He was back on the porch in an astonishingly short time, his face tight, his knees trembling, carrying iced lemonade to thirsty Frances with both his devoted hands.

  A pace distant from her he stopped, literally stabbed through with a thought. Here he stood in broad daylight carrying a teapot with lemonade in it, and his grandma or Old Janet might walk through the door at any moment.

  “Come on, Frances,” he whispered loudly. “Let’s go round to the back behind the rose bushes where it’s shady.” Frances leaped up and ran like a deer beside him, her face wise with knowledge of why they ran; Stephen ran stiffly, cherishing his teapot with clenched hands.

  It was shady behind the rose bushes, and much safer. They sat side by side on the dampish ground, legs doubled under, drinking in turn from the slender spout. Stephen took his just share in large, cool, delicious swallows. When Frances drank she set her round pink mouth daintily to the spout and her throat beat steadily as a heart. Stephen was thinking he had really done something pretty nice for Frances. He did not know where his own happiness was; it was mixed with the sweet-sour taste in his mouth and a cool feeling in his bosom because Frances was there drinking his lemonade which he had got for her with great danger.

  Frances said, “My, what big swallows you take,” when his turn came next.

  “No bigger than yours,” he told her downrightly. “You take awfully big swallows.”

  “Well,” said Frances, turning this criticism into an argument for her rightness about things, “that’s the way to drink lemonade anyway.” She peered into the teapot. There was quite a lot of lemonade left and she was beginning to feel she had enough. “Let’s make up a game and see who can take the biggest swallows.”

  This was such a wonderful notion they grew reckless, tipping the spout into their opened mouths above their heads until lemonade welled up and ran over their chins in rills down their fronts. When they tired of this there was still lemonade left in the pot. They played first at giving the rosebush a drink and ended by baptizing it. “Name father son holygoat,” shouted Stephen, pouring. At this sound Old Janet’s face appeared over the low hedge, with the tan, disgusted-looking face of Frances’ nurse hanging over her shoulder.

  “Well, just as I thought,” said Old Janet. “Just as I expected.” The bag under her chin waggled.

  “We were thirsty,” he said; “we were awfully thirsty.” Frances said nothing, but she gazed steadily at the toes of her shoes.

  “Give me that teapot,” said Old Janet, taking it with a rude snatch. “Just because you’re thirsty is no reason,” said Old Janet. “You can ask for things. You don’t have to steal.”

  “We didn’t steal,” cried Frances suddenly. “We didn’t. We didn’t!”

  “That’s enough from you, missy,” said her nurse. “Come straight out of there. You
have nothing to do with this.”

  “Oh, I don’t know,” said Old Janet with a hard stare at Frances’ nurse. “He never did such a thing before, by himself.”

  “Come on,” said the nurse to Frances, “this is no place for you.” She held Frances by the wrist and started walking away so fast Frances had to run to keep up. “Nobody can call us thieves and get away with it.”

  “You don’t have to steal, even if others do,” said Old Janet to Stephen, in a high carrying voice. “If you so much as pick up a lemon in somebody else’s house you’re a little thief.” She lowered her voice then and said, “Now I’m going to tell your grandma and you’ll see what you get.”

  “He went in the icebox and left it open,” Janet told Grandma, “and he got into the lump sugar and spilt it all over the floor. Lumps everywhere underfoot. He dribbled water all over the clean kitchen floor, and he baptized the rose bush, blaspheming. And he took your Spode teapot.”

  “I didn’t either,” said Stephen loudly, trying to free his hand from Old Janet’s big hard fist.

  “Don’t tell fibs,” said Old Janet; “that’s the last straw.”

  “Oh, dear,” said Grandma. “He’s not a baby any more.” She shut the book she was reading and pulled the wet front of his pullover toward her. “What’s this sticky stuff on him?” she asked and straightened her glasses.

  “Lemonade,” said Old Janet. “He took the last lemon.”

  They were in the big dark room with the red curtains. Uncle David walked in from the room with the bookcases, holding a box in his uplifted hand. “Look here,” he said to Stephen. “What’s become of all my balloons?”

  Stephen knew well that Uncle David was not really asking a question.

  Stephen, sitting on a footstool at his grandma’s knee, felt sleepy. He leaned heavily and wished he could put his head on her lap, but he might go to sleep, and it would be wrong to go to sleep while Uncle David was still talking. Uncle David walked about the room with his hands in his pockets, talking to Grandma. Now and then he would walk over to a lamp and, leaning, peer into the top of the shade, winking in the light, as if he expected to find something there.

  “It’s simply in the blood, I told her,” said Uncle David. “I told her she would simply have to come and get him, and keep him. She asked me if I meant to call him a thief and I said if she could think of a more exact word I’d be glad to hear it.”

  “You shouldn’t have said that,” commented Grandma calmly.

  “Why not? She might as well know the facts. . . . I suppose he can’t help it,” said Uncle David, stopping now in front of Stephen and dropping his chin into his collar, “I shouldn’t expect too much of him, but you can’t begin too early—”

  “The trouble is,” said Grandma, and while she spoke she took Stephen by the chin and held it up so that he had to meet her eye; she talked steadily in a mournful tone, but Stephen could not understand. She ended, “It’s not just about the balloons, of course.”

  “It is about the balloons,” said Uncle David angrily, “because balloons now mean something worse later. But what can you expect? His father—well, it’s in the blood. He—”

  “That’s your sister’s husband you’re talking about,” said Grandma, “and there is no use making things worse. Besides, you don’t really know.”

  “I do know,” said Uncle David. And he talked again very fast, walking up and down. Stephen tried to understand, but the sounds were strange and floating just over his head. They were talking about his father, and they did not like him. Uncle David came over and stood above Stephen and Grandma. He hunched over them with a frowning face, a long, crooked shadow from him falling across them to the wall. To Stephen he looked like his father, and he shrank against his grandma’s skirts.

  “The question is, what to do with him now?” asked Uncle David. “If we keep him here, he’d just be a—I won’t be bothered with him. Why can’t they take care of their own child? That house is crazy. Too far gone already, I’m afraid. No training. No example.”

  “You’re right, they must take him and keep him,” said Grandma. She ran her hands over Stephen’s head; tenderly she pinched the nape of his neck between thumb and forefinger. “You’re your Grandma’s darling,” she told him, “and you’ve had a nice long visit, and now you’re going home. Mama is coming for you in a few minutes. Won’t that be nice?”

  “I want my mama,” said Stephen, whimpering, for his grandma’s face frightened him. There was something wrong with her smile.

  Uncle David sat down. “Come over here, fellow,” he said, wagging a forefinger at Stephen. Stephen went over slowly, and Uncle David drew him between his wide knees in their loose, rough clothes. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” he said, “stealing Uncle David’s balloons when he had already given you so many.”

  “It wasn’t that,” said Grandma quickly. “Don’t say that. It will make an impression—”

  “I hope it does,” said Uncle David in a louder voice; “I hope he remembers it all his life. If he belonged to me I’d give him a good thrashing.”

  Stephen felt his mouth, his chin, his whole face jerking. He opened his mouth to take a breath, and tears and noise burst from him. “Stop that, fellow, stop that,” said Uncle David, shaking him gently by the shoulders, but Stephen could not stop. He drew his breath again and it came back in a howl. Old Janet came to the door.

  “Bring me some cold water,” called Grandma. There was a flurry, a commotion, a breath of cool air from the hall, the door slammed, and Stephen heard his mother’s voice. His howl died away, his breath sobbed and fluttered, he turned his dimmed eyes and saw her standing there. His heart turned over within him and he bleated like a lamb, “Maaaaama,” running toward her. Uncle David stood back as Mama swooped in and fell on her knees beside Stephen. She gathered him to her and stood up with him in her arms.

  “What are you doing to my baby?” she asked Uncle David in a thickened voice. “I should never have let him come here. I should have known better—”

  “You always should know better,” said Uncle David, “and you never do. And you never will. You haven’t got it here,” he told her, tapping his forehead.

  “David,” said Grandma, “that’s your—”

  “Yes, I know, she’s my sister,” said Uncle David. “I know it. But if she must run away and marry a—”

  “Shut up,” said Mama.

  “And bring more like him into the world, let her keep them at home. I say let her keep—”

  Mama set Stephen on the floor and, holding him by the hand, she said to Grandma all in a rush as if she were reading something, “Good-by, Mother. This is the last time, really the last. I can’t bear it any longer. Say good-by to Stephen; you’ll never see him again. You let this happen. It’s your fault. You know David was a coward and a bully and a self-righteous little beast all his life and you never crossed him in anything. You let him bully me all my life and you let him slander my husband and call my baby a thief, and now this is the end. . . . He calls my baby a thief over a few horrible little balloons because he doesn’t like my husband. . . .”

  She was panting and staring about from one to the other. They were all standing. Now Grandma said, “Go home, daughter. Go away, David. I’m sick of your quarreling. I’ve never had a day’s peace or comfort from either of you. I’m sick of you both. Now let me alone and stop this noise. Go away,” said Grandma in a wavering voice. She took out her handkerchief and wiped first one eye and then the other and said, “All this hate, hate—what is it for?. . . So this is the way it turns out. Well, let me alone.”

  “You and your little advertising balloons,” said Mama to Uncle David. “The big honest businessman advertises with balloons and if he loses one he’ll be ruined. And your beastly little moral notions. . .”

  Grandma went to the door to meet Old Janet, who handed her a glass of water. Grandma drank it all, standing there.

  “Is your husband coming for you, or are you going home
by yourself?” she asked Mama.

  “I’m driving myself,” said Mama in a far-away voice as if her mind had wandered. “You know he wouldn’t set foot in this house.”

  “I should think not,” said Uncle David.

  “Come on, Stephen darling,” said Mama. “It’s far past his bedtime,” she said, to no one in particular. “Imagine keeping a baby up to torture him about a few miserable little bits of colored rubber.” She smiled at Uncle David with both rows of teeth as she passed him on the way to the door, keeping between him and Stephen. “Ah, where would we be without high moral standards,” she said, and then to Grandma, “Good night, Mother,” in quite her usual voice. “I’ll see you in a day or so.”

  “Yes, indeed,” said Grandma cheerfully, coming out into the hall with Stephen and Mama. “Let me hear from you. Ring me up tomorrow. I hope you’ll be feeling better.”

  “I feel very well now,” said Mama brightly, laughing. She bent down and kissed Stephen. “Sleepy, darling? Papa’s waiting to see you. Don’t go to sleep until you’ve kissed your papa good night.”

  Stephen woke with a sharp jerk. He raised his head and put out his chin a little. “I don’t want to go home,” he said; “I want to go to school. I don’t want to see Papa, I don’t like him.”

  Mama laid her palm over his mouth softly. “Darling, don’t.”

  Uncle David put his head out with a kind of snort. “There you are,” he said. “There you’ve got a statement from headquarters.”

  Mama opened the door and ran, almost carrying Stephen. She ran across the sidewalk, jerking open the car door and dragging Stephen in after her. She spun the car around and dashed forward so sharply Stephen was almost flung out of the seat. He sat braced then with all his might, hands digging into the cushions. The car speeded up and the trees and houses whizzed by all flattened out. Stephen began suddenly to sing to himself, a quiet, inside song so Mama would not hear. He sang his new secret; it was a comfortable, sleepy song: “I hate Papa, I hate Mama, I hate Grandma, I hate Uncle David, I hate Old Janet, I hate Marjory, I hate Papa, I hate Mama. . .”

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